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5 Best Matsumoto Toshio Short Films

Matsumoto is best known for the film Bara no souretsu / Funeral Parade of Roses, a movie about Tokyo’s hidden gay subculture during the 1960s. His other notable film, Shura / Pandemonium is also highly regarded, and I’d consider it even better than Bara no souretsu. He was a prominent figure in 60s and 70s Japanese experimental cinema, directing over 30 shorts during this time, and is now a professor and dean at the Kyoto University of Art and Design. This is a list of his 5 best shorts.

Atman (1975)

Haha I bet you scrolled away from this pic didn't you

1. Atman
Year: 1975
Runtime: 11 mins.

A man in a Noh demon mask and costume is kneeling on a bed of rocks. The camera pans around him, zooms in, zooms out. The colors change, the images flash, still shots of him flow into each other.

The Good Stuff:
– The dude in a Noh mask is freaky
– There is a growing sense of anxiety and thrill even though nothing really happens

The Best Stuff:
– Every shot, from every angle, looks fantastic
– The sequence of still shots combined creates a wonderful effect


2. Haha-tachi / 母たち / Mothers
Year: 1967
Runtime: 40 mins.

Short segments about motherhood from 3 different cultures: the West, Asia, and Africa.

The Good Stuff:
– Simple structure of showing one culture after another is effective

The Best Stuff:
– Frank and unsentimental look at motherhood


Ishi no uta / 石の歌 / The Song of Stone (1963)

Rocks, rocks, and more rocks. Oh look, rocks!

3. Ishi no uta / 石の歌 / The Song of Stone
Year: 1963
Runtime: 25 mins.

A documentary about stone and the miners who depend on it for their subsistence.

The Good Stuff:
– Camera movements while picturing photographs is interesting
– Music reminiscent of Takemitsu’s score for Suna no onna

The Best Stuff:
– Beautiful pictures of rocks and use of photographs


Ki = Breathing (1980)

I told you it was freaky. Oh wait, pic comes before review oops!

4. Ki = Breathing
Year: 1980
Runtime: 30 mins.

A kakejiku (Japanese hanging scroll) hangs in darkness and the camera enters its picture of trees and mist. There is a strange, eerie forest with a strange woman. More forests, mountains, a beach… and more bizarre images.

The Good Stuff:
– Thrilling, chilling, eerie… but in a good way?
– More similar to Terayama Shuji’s work than Matsumoto’s own, standing out from the rest
– Calm and stunning images, but kinda freaky

The Best Stuff:
– Wonderful music by Takemitsu Toru as usual
– Great use of sound


5. Nishijin / 西陣 / The Weavers of Nishijin
Year: 1962
Runtime: 26 mins.

A documentary about traditional weavers of Nishijin.

The Good Stuff:
– Very poignant narration
– An interesting subject even though we don’t learn that much about them

The Best Stuff:
– Weaving may never look this beautiful, probably Matsumoto’s best looking short


Overall, his short films cover a diverse array of subjects each with their own unique visual style or concept. The above films are all worthy of seeing, even though you may not have any interest in experimental cinema (whatever the heck that is).

You can view them here.

Mujo / This Transient Life

Jissoji Akio - Mujo / This Transient Life (1970)

Tons of nudity, if you like that I guess

Director: Jissoji Akio
Writers: Ishido Yashiro
Date: 1970

Genre: Drama
Description: Buddhism, incest, life and death, meaning of life, sculpture, sex, desire

Cast: Tamura Ryo, Tsukasa Michiko, Hananomoto Kotobuki, Kobayashi Akiji, Okada Eiji, Sugai Kin, Terada Minori

Crew of note: Music by Takemitsu Toru. Cinematography by Inagaki Youzo

Runtime: 2 hrs 23 mins.
Color: Black and White

Masao wants nothing out of life, until one day he encounters a sculptor obsessed with creating statues of the Kannon (Goddess of mercy). He and his sister live in a large estate, and isolated there, develop a forbidden love affair.

I’m very squeamish and I easily get upset. I have to admit that it’s my great weakness when watching movies; it greatly limits what I can see and appreciate. Nudity in most movies rarely feels right or natural to me, and I try to avoid topics like rape or incest or torture. I enjoy experimental cinema, yeah, but when films start pushing the bounds of taste… I’m often left far behind.

That’s why Mujo came as such a pleasant surprise. It combines a few things that I’m not particularly fond of–incest, lots of nudity and sex, and a ton of abstractness–yet somehow I was captivated. This was actually my third Jissoji (after Mandara and Uta, two films that I didn’t quite enjoy and merely appreciated in their craft), so I wasn’t expecting to have a good time. But I did.

Jissoji Akio - Mujo / This Transient Life (1970)

If you have any interest in Buddhism, in existentialism, in philosophy, Mujo is pretty much required viewing. The dialogue between the different characters–Masao, the Buddhist priest, the Kannon sculptor…–is very deep and intelligent. It will take some concentration and some pauses (to do some research maybe), but their conversations do bring up important points and important questions. And even when they try to elaborate answers, only more questions surface.

Don’t blink or spend too much time staring into space as you think though, because you’ll end up missing half of the film, maybe half of its meaning. Jissoji’s films are well known for their pictures, and Mujo is probably his best work. His use of angles, architecture, shadows and shape, negative space, whiteness and movement is brilliant, and the film does deserve to be seen twice or more; once to understand the story, and once to simply watch the camera and listen to the music. If you can pay attention to the story and dialogue and the pictures at the same time though, then you will also be treated to great cinematic lyricism: Nothingness and negative space, tradition/religion and architecture, desire and shadows, sexuality and shape, transition and movement. It is no exaggeration to say that this is one of the most brilliantly shot movies I’ve ever seen, because the pictures not only supplement the plot; in fact they may be essential to it.

Jissoji Akio - Mujo / This Transient Life (1970)

The music in the film is also a delight: a very SNES Castlevania: Symphony of the Night MIDI cornfest that somehow works perfectly. Well, at least that’s what it sounded like to me. Takemitsu Toru’s work is quite varied, but always appropriate and beautiful, and he does some of his finest work on Mujo.

This film is almost as hard to understand as it is to locate (ok honestly it’s harder to understand). It’s really difficult, but if you can get past the objectionable content and commit some brain power to try and understand the plot, dialogue, and philosophy of Mujo, the experience can be deeply rewarding. In the right frame of mind, Mujo can be mind blowing, but it can also be silly, overwrought and meaningless to many (fair enough, it just isn’t very easy). It’s still pretty to look at though, and that soundtrack is awesome.

Jissoji Akio - Mujo / This Transient Life (1970)

Wow, I didn't even have anything funny to say for the screencaps

things to take note of
Carving Kannon
Negative spaces
Try your best to understand their crazy complicated dialogue?

best moment
Man, just watch that camera move
Let’s talk Buddhism/life and death/existentialism

why you should watch this
One of the most beautifully shot films ever
The discussions on Buddhism, life and death, and other issues are some of the best

rating: 8.5 – it would be much higher, but I’m kinda over sensitive about nudity and the incest; it’d be 9 otherwise

Plot: B
Cast: C+
Cinematography: A +++
Music: A
Entertainment: C+

similar movies, maybe:
Other Jissoji films from that era, like Uta and Mandara. Also, Why Has Bodhi-Dharma Left for the East for some more Buddhism-y goodness.

Kokoro / The Heart

Kokoro / The Heart (1955)

Their faces make it clear enough: this isn't a sappy romance film?

Director: Ichikawa Kon
Writers: Hasebe Keiji, Inomata Katsuhito, Natsume Soseki
Date: 1955

Genre: Drama
Description: Husband-Wife relationship, troubled marriage, sins of the past, a haunted man, friendship, buddhism

Cast: Mori Masayuki, Aratama Michiyo, Mihashi Tatsuya, Yasui Shoji, Tanie Kitabayashi

Crew of note:

Runtime: 122 mins.
Color: Black and White

Nobuchi and Shizu are a married couple, but something from their shared past has troubled their relationship since its beginning. Nobuchi mostly keeps to himself, his books, and his thoughts, with few friends except for one sympathetic student with whom he feels an odd affinity with. This dark secret that only he knows haunts him day and night; will we ever find out what it is?

A surprisingly deep film with very complex and difficult characters. At first it seems the movie will just become another marital affair film, but in fact it is more about the past, one’s sins, living on with what you have, and difficult circumstances. Barely anything happens, and most of what is shown is directly related to the main plot, with very little diversions, not a frame wasted. Yet the movie is also very still, very silent, very somber, an incredible effect that Ichikawa achieves with close and mid-range shots and characters that are constantly in flux of emotions and movement. The voices are muted, but never totally silent, and the economy of their words is very Japanese. Another great factor in this film is the almost inexplicable bonds between Nobuchi, Shizu, and Kaji. A movie that seems boring and uneventful on the surface, but the characters and their respective performances make this a real wonder.

There is something very raw, very base about the characters in the film, as if they were acting upon their deepest, simplest desires. The transition between the present and the past is also done well, with flashbacks inserted into the most appropriate moments. Movies that use multiple flashbacks cut into the main timeline usually feel very fragmented and confusing, yet in Kokoro, the past is so significant, so a part of the present that the breaks in continuity are barely felt. At the end of the film, once everything is revealed, it is not sympathy, and perhaps not even compassion that one will feel with the main characters. It is something more complex, more conflicted. I am at odds at what word is best, so I guess I’ll just leave that idea incomplete and let you find out for yourself.

Aratama Michiyo in Kokoro / The Heart

❤ (The first pun ever made with symbols? Quite possibly!)

Although nothing much happens on the surface, there is a pot (maybe a barrel) of boiling water (note: emotions, if you suck at metaphors) underneath. With three sticks of dynamite. If you appreciate the importance of character, and the exploration of a man’s psychology, his past, and his conflict, then this’ll be a real treat. Few can surpass Ichikawa’s study of Nobuchi captured on film.

things to take note of
Kaji’s buddhism
Nobuchi’s conflict
Shizu’s repression

best moment
Whenever Kaji and Nobuchi argue

why you should watch this
Incredibly complex emotions
Some of the most well developed characters evar

rating: 8.5

Plot: B+
Cast: A
Cinematography: B+
Music: C+
Entertainment: B

similar movies, maybe:
Meshi / Repast, directed by Naruse Mikio
Both versions of Spring in a Small Town (1948 and 2002)



November 2020